President Reagan intends to welcome home the American hostages from Lebanon today by emphasizing his fight against international terrorism, but White House officials said they have concluded that there is no purpose in trying to exploit the crisis for quick political gains.
The White House has intentionally planned a low-key arrival ceremony at Andrews Air Force Base this afternoon, with Reagan expected to make brief remarks.
The event is to be without the trappings of a victory celebration that marked the return of American medical students from Grenada two years ago.
Some of the returning hostages and their families were critical of the administration during the Lebanon crisis, and a White House official said yesterday that the prevailing view is that Reagan should shake hands with all of the hostages and "let them get on with" going home.
Plans for such a brief ceremony reflect a White House view that the end of the hostage crisis represents a moment of relief, not necessarily celebration, for Reagan.
"I think the best you can say is that Reagan dodged a bullet" by winning release of 39 hostages in 17 days, said a Republican political strategist with close ties to the White House.
Such strategists said Reagan will gain credit for winning release of the hostages and does not need to claim it. Other officials said they believe that Reagan should take a restrained approach as long as seven other Americans are held captive in Lebanon.
Unlike the welcome given returnees from Grenada, when Reagan celebrated a renewal of U.S. military power, officials said the response this time would seek to focus American public opinion on terrorism and Reagan's proposals to combat it.
"It's a long, slow process of education -- that you don't deal with these fellows," a White House official said.
Officials said new proposals to combat terrorism are being readied and include such moves as tighter security procedures at airports and yesterday's announcement that the United States wants to close down the Beirut International Airport.
Reagan's meetings at the White House yesterday were dominated by discussion of the hostage crisis and the administration's next steps, including the president's weekly issues luncheon, a meeting with his national security advisers and a Cabinet meeting, officials said.
National security affairs adviser Robert C. McFarlane has talked in recent days of a campaign to attack the "root sources of terrorism," and officials said that, over the long term, this may include military action against terrorist training camps in Iran, Lebanon and Libya.
Reagan has frequently promised that terrorists will be "held to account" and said in 1981 that he would seek "swift and effective retribution" against terrorist acts. Some senior officials said they believed that he would eventually order a military strike in part to "fulfill" his rhetoric, as one official put it, and demonstrate that his threats are not empty.
But key administration officials have expressed differences about such military actions. One reason for the rifts was concern among Pentagon officials about what kinds of military action the American public would support.
It is not clear if the administration is in agreement now on timing and techniques for a military strike against terrorists, but Reagan's speeches may be directed at attempting to build public support for such an action, officials said.
A task force headed by Vice President Bush has been assigned to discuss the terrorism issue when Bush returns from Europe, and possible U.S. policy options are being prepared at the National Security Council, officials said.
White House aides cited several factors to explain why Reagan is not planning an upbeat celebration of the hostages' return.
The major one is the seven captives still being held in Beirut by Islamic extremists. Some of their families have complained publicly that not enough is being done to win their release.
Another is that the episode involving the 39 former hostages was largely a product of diplomacy unseen by most Americans, not the military strength that Reagan celebrated after Grenada.
Officials also said that, although the White House would welcome an infusion of political capital after the difficult start to Reagan's second term, his agenda on Capitol Hill is limited to such items as the House-Senate budget negotiations.
Reagan's tax-overhaul plan is not scheduled for votes or intensive White House lobbying until autumn, and whether the hostage crisis will have an impact then on Reagan's political fortunes is unknown.
"We're going to low-key it," one official said yesterday. "It would be a mistake to do anything else.